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United States Marshal Robert Forsyth

On 11 January 1794, U.S. Marshal Robert Forsyth, District Court of Georgia, and two deputies, called on Beverly Allen to serve him with civil papers. Allen immediately ran to an upstairs room and locked the door behind him. Forsyth and his deputies followed. A shot rang out, the bullet smashing through the door and striking Forsyth in the forehead. He fell down dead.

Marshal Forsyth became the first U.S. federal law enforcement officer killed during an adversarial action.

The deputies arrested Allen, only to see him escape after six weeks. Allen fled to Rogue’s Harbor, Kentucky, a known haven for criminals, where he repented and died of natural causes 23 years later.

In 1789, Congress passed the Judiciary Act, creating a three-tiered justice system that includes the Supreme Court, a circuit of appellate courts, and the lowest tier, a District Court for each state. Congress recognized the need for administrators to assist judges and created the United States Marshals Service. The marshals would be responsible for a range of duties; serving subpoenas, summonses, and warrants; making arrests; paying fees and expenses; renting jails and courtrooms; and ensuring full pitchers of water were available during proceedings.

President George Washington appointed a U.S. marshal for each newly independent American colony, at the time only 13 states bonded under one democracy. The new president drew from the ranks of his Colonial Army, recruiting respected Revolutionary War veterans such as Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Ramsey of Maryland, who exhibited extreme bravery at the Battle of Monmouth; Henry Dearborn of Maine; and Isaac Huger of South Carolina. Robert Forsyth had served with distinction as a captain under Major-General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III.

Tragically, the death of Robert Forsyth was the beginning of a long line of federal law enforcement officers who would die in the line of duty. Since the murder of Marshal Forsyth, 200 U.S. marshals and deputy marshals have given their lives for their work. On one day alone, 15 April 1872, eight deputy marshals were shot and killed at a courthouse in the Oklahoma Indian Territory.

Read more about the early days of federal policing in the United States and the beginnings of today’s FBI in The Birth of the FBI—Teddy Roosevelt, the Secret Service, and the Fight Over America’s Premier Law Enforcement Agency by Willard M. Oliver.


By R. Scott Decker, Ph.D., retired FBI agent and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI.